Globe and Mail

Child development more affected by parenting than social class

Researchers challenge notion that poor produce difficult children

The Globe and Mail
Monday, October 4, 1999

Good parenting has a more pronounced effect on children than poverty or affluence, a Canadian researcher has found in a landmark study that compared the child-rearing practices of the rich and the poor.

"The effects of parenting far outweigh the effects of social-class background," said Prof. Douglas Willms, director of the University of New Brunswick's Atlantic Centre for Policy Research.

No group has a monopoly on strong child-rearing skills -- or questionable ones. Weak practices are found in near-equal measure among the rich, the middle-class and the poor, according to the study, written by Prof. Willms and Ruth Chao of the University of California, Riverside. It is to be published soon in Prof. Willms's book, Vulnerable Children.

"For too long we've characterized poor families and single-parent families as the source of children with behaviour problems and low academic achievement," Prof. Willms said in an interview.

"It's really not the case. What really matters is parenting practices: how they parent, how much they're engaged with their children, how responsive they are, how much they monitor behaviours and so on."

The authors say their study, based on a representative sample of 19,000 Canadian parents of 2- to 11-year-olds, challenges the notion of a "culture of poverty" -- the widespread belief that the poor are doing such a bad job of raising their children that they are dooming them to live on society's margins.

But if the study means less stigma for poor parents, it also suggests an explosive political result: an end to targeted programs for the poor, and a move to share resources with the middle class and affluent.

"If you have targeted programs that try to address the problems of low-income families, single-parent families and so on, you're only going to reach a small proportion of vulnerable children. That's one of the fundamental messages from this research," said Prof. Willms.

That would require a change of attitude, not only by government but among middle-class parents. Speaking of his own family -- two girls under 5, plus a baby boy expected in a week or so -- he said he and his wife went to prenatal classes the first two times. "That's a very accepted thing for middle-class parents to do. But most often a parenting course doesn't exist. Or you think, 'We don't really need that sort of thing.' But I think we as a middle-class family really could benefit."

What he found was that wealth and child-rearing skills are independent of each other -- but that child-rearing skills are more important.

As an example, he says, take four children, two rich and two poor. In each group, one child has terrific parents and the other child has weak ones. Who will do better? The answer: the ones with strong parents. Another, more specific example: The vocabulary levels of four-year-olds vary more according to parent skill levels than money.

The study had several surprising findings about how Canadians are raising their children.

Just one-third of Canadian parents can be characterized as "authoritative" -- the most skilled, according to the authors, at raising their children in a fair, firm way. Children of authoritative parents are the most likely to do well in school and the least likely to develop behavioural problems. These parents had slightly higher than average income, education levels and job prestige. But families from all backgrounds could be found within this group.

One in seven parents of preschool children are struggling. Prof. Willms labels them "permissive-irrational," meaning that they often ignore bad behaviour and are not consistent in disciplining their children. The same proportion of parents of school-age children is in a slightly different category, even less skilled, which the authors call "irresponsible," because they scored uniformly low on four key parenting scales. These parents had slightly lower than average levels of income, education and job prestige -- but again, families from all backgrounds fell into this category.

Parents become steadily less responsive towards their children once they reach the age of 4. At the same time, responsiveness is growing more, not less important to children's development. "As soon as they enter school, you get caught up in taking them here and taking them there," Prof. Willms said, ruing what he sees as a decline in time for quiet engagement between parents and children.

The study is part of a massive Canadian effort to understand what makes some children thrive well while others struggle in school or turn to drugs and crime. The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, sponsored by the federal government, is tracking thousands of children from birth to age 11, and is proving rich ground for researchers.

The longitudinal survey has already found that poor children generally tend to fall far behind the children of the middle and upper classes in school and develop more emotional problems. (Children of single parents, too, have more emotional and behavioural problems, no matter what financial status.) On the other hand, there are more middle-class children than poor children with problems, because the middle class is the larger group.

Prof. Willms and Prof. Chao set out to find whether the child-rearing styles of Canadians differ according to their social class. They then looked at whether the most skilled parents were producing children who were most likely to thrive. Beyond that, they wanted to know whether the most skilled parents among the poor are raising children who do better in school and suffer fewer social problems than the average poor child.


Parents were asked 25 questions to determine how they ranked on four scales, each measuring positive child-rearing practices.

The first scale, Rational (also known as Consistent), included questions such as, "How often do you get annoyed with [your child] for saying or doing something he/she is not supposed to?" and "How often do you think that the kind of punishment you give him/her depends on your mood?"

The questions on the second scale, Responsive, included, "How often do you praise [your child] by saying something like 'Good for you!' or 'What a nice thing you did!' or 'That's good going!' "

The third scale, Firm approach, included, "When you give him/her a command order to do something, what proportion of the time do you make sure that he/she does it?"

The fourth scale, Reasons with child, was based on a single question, "When [your child] breaks the rules or does things that he/she is not supposed to, how often do you: a) Calmly discuss the problem? and b) Describe alternative ways of behaving that are acceptable?"

Parents were ranked out of five on each scale -- it's being changed to 10 for the final, published version -- and placed into one of four categories, which co-author Douglas Willms describes as tendencies, rather than rigid groupings:

Authoritative: These parents establish a warm and nurturing relationship with their children, but set firm limits for their behaviour. Within those limits, they present options, discuss alternate ways of behaving and allow them to participate in family decisions. Their children do well academically and behave well.

Authoritarian: They are highly controlling, requiring their children to meet an absolute set of standards. They are less flexible, and lack responsiveness and warmth.

Permissive: These parents are overnurturing. They provide few standards for behaviour, and are extremely tolerant of misbehaviour.

Permissive-Irrational: Unlike other permissive parents, they seldom discuss problems in a calm way with their children or provide alternatives. Their practices tend to be more erratic.

Sean Fine

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